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Why do kids suck their thumbs?

Thumb sucking is a natural reflex that begins in the womb, before birth. For babies and small children, it is a soothing behavior that can help them when they are anxious or want to go to sleep. In many children, thumb sucking may continue into the toddler years. According to the American Dental Association, most children stop thumb sucking on their own somewhere between 2 and 4 years of age.

Is thumb sucking bad for my child’s teeth?

The repetitive motion and pressure of vigorous thumb sucking can cause misalignment of your child’s teeth, affect the jaw and the shape and roof of the mouth. Possible issues include:

  • an overbite, where the front teeth protrude out from the jaw and mouth
  • other bite issues, such as the bottom teeth tipping inward toward the back of the mouth or an open bite, where the top and bottom teeth don’t meet when the mouth is closed
  • changes to the shape of the jaw, which can affect teeth alignment and speech patterns, such as the development of a lisp
  • sensitivity of the roof of the mouth

The good news is that most of these issues resolve or won’t develop at all if thumb sucking drops off by the time the permanent teeth are in, usually around 6 years of age.

When should I be concerned?

If your child is still sucking their thumb once their permanent teeth come in, there is an increased risk that they will experience problems with teeth alignment, the roof of their mouth and jaw development. The severity of the risk is related to how often, how long and how intensely your child sucks on his or her thumb.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, parents may want to consider treatment or strategies to help their child stop sucking their thumb once they reach the age of 5.

How can I help my child stop sucking their thumb?

Depending on your child’s age, some of these tactics may help them to stop sucking their thumb. You will have a greater chance of success if your child also wants to stop.

  • Ignore the behavior – this is best if your child is resistant to giving up their thumb sucking. The more attention you pay to it, the more they will do it.
  • Pay attention to thumb sucking triggers – does your child suck their thumb when they are bored, tired, stressed, hungry or want attention? Knowing what triggers the behavior can help you address or distract from it.
  • Use positive reinforcement – using praise, rewards or a simple sticker chart in combination with attainable goals can help your child want to stop sucking their thumb.
  • Remind your child gently – children often absentmindedly suck their thumbs. A gentle reminder may help keep them on track.
  • Ask your dentist for help – your child may respond better to a conversation with the dentist than with you about what potential damage thumb sucking could do to their oral development.
  • Talk to your child about it – for older children, especially those who have been teased about their thumb sucking in school, this may be enough to curb the behavior.
  • Make it difficult for your child to suck their thumb – in cases where nothing else seems to work, techniques such as covering your child’s thumb with a thumb guard, bandage, or sock, or painting their thumb nail in a bitter substance may help.

For some children, thumb sucking is an incredibly difficult habit to break. Try to be patient – putting too much pressure on your child to stop thumb sucking might only delay the process. If you are concerned about your child’s thumb sucking, or the effect it is having on their oral development, please ask Dr. Davis at your next visit so she can assess and make recommendations on the best course of action.

 

Sources: Healthline.com, American Dental Association (ADA), Mayo Clinic